Let's Put On A Play! A History of the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre
On February 23, 1935 the Ann Arbor Daily News announced the formation of a “Civic Amateur Theatre Group intended to meet the need for a dramatic organization in Ann Arbor.” It was open to anyone, not just those interested in appearing in plays but also those who were willing to work behind the scenes.
The group had begun in 1929 as a private club that met in homes and school rooms. When they invited the general public to join, they already had 250 members and had chosen a play to be put on in a month, The Late Christopher Bean by Sidney Howard. Their second production, in May of 1935, featured dance and music as well as two one-act plays to “offer a representative resume of the many talents and interests of the members.” The News reported that the group “follows the idea of English community drama” and that they were obviously filling “a real need in Ann Arbor.”
In the fall they started a new season with meetings every other week at the Michigan Union, alternating between laboratory productions and play reading. After the meetings they had a social time with “cigarettes and coffee.” One of the lab productions was a one-act play written by a local man, Dr. Harold Whitehall, the assistant editor of the Middle English Dictionary.
Their public performances were usually comedies or mysteries. Anyone familiar with pre- World War II movies will recognize many of the titles such as You Can’t Take It With You, Easy Living and Arsenic and Old Lace. They used the Michigan Union Small Ballroom for their lab productions, but moved into bigger venues for their public shows, starting with school auditoriums and later into Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.
Their shows got wide coverage in the News and were enthusiastically reviewed. Women participants were identified by a “Mrs.” in front of their husband’s name and addresses were always given. Where one lived was evidently an important identifier in those days. Although reports always sound like the group was doing great, a later article stated that they were beset with money worries during this time. Not surprising, since Ann Arbor, like the rest of the country, was in the midst of the great depression.
In 1942 they reincorporated as the “Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, removing “amateur” from the title. They continued operating during the first two years of World War II and put on several fundraisers to help finance the Chamber of Commerce’s War Services Office. They disbanded from 1944-46 when they found it hard to keep going with a shortage of manpower.
When the Civic Theatre reconvened in 1947, they could no longer use the Michigan Union as their headquarters. Soaring enrollments, with veterans returning to school on the GI bill, meant the Union was needed for university functions. The Civic Theatre rented space at 305 ½ Main for rehearsals and scenery building until the city let them use the old log cabin at Burns Park. When the log cabin was torn down to make room for a park shelter, they moved to an abandoned one-room school at Wagner and Ellsworth. They continued to use area theaters for their public productions. My Sister Eileen was their first post war show, followed by The Late George Apley, a benefit for the police department to buy a new cruiser.
In 1951 they hosted their first awards banquet. Ted Heusel, who had joined the year before, received two “Oscars” for performing and directing Strange Bedfellows, a play that the reviewer said was “as easy to take as an innerspring mattress.” Heusel stayed involved for many years, sometimes directing all the plays in a season. When, because of failing health, he stepped down in 1994, he estimated that he had acted or directed in over 200 shows. His wife, Nancy Heusel, often played leading ladies, both under his direction and those of others.
In the post-war years the Civic Theatre widened their offerings. War-themed plays were a staple such as Mr. Roberts, Stalag 17, and Diary of Anne Frank. Works of major playwrights were presented - Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Clifford Odets, George Bernard Shaw. It was productions of Miller’s All My Sons and Shaw’s Major Barbara that so impressed Burnette Staebler, that she became active in the Civic Theatre, both as an actor and a director. In a later interview she said, “I decided this was a group that was interested not just in being a little social club that gives plays for fun, but were really interested in doing the very best job that amateurs can do.”
Reviewers were also taking them more seriously, sometimes actually critical of productions, something that they had not done in the “amateur” days. In 1957 when the group first tried to do Shakespeare, the reviewer wrote “Merchant of Venice too much for Civic Theatre.” Undeterred, the next year they put on Julius Caesar, offering special matinees for junior and senior high school students.
The introduction of musicals was better received. The reviewer wrote in 1958 that the production of Guys and Dolls was better than expected, saying it “draws skeptical critic’s raves.” From then on musicals were a staple and always an audience pleaser. In 1958 Heusel directed Mia Mine, a play by his friend Harriet Bennett Hamme, daughter of the notorious Harry Bennett, henchman of Henry Ford. Although Hamme admitted that the play takes place in a mansion similar to the one she grew up in, she said none of the characters were based on living people. As a student at the University of Michigan, she had earned a Hopwood Award for the play.
Real life events intervened at the October, 7, 1960 production of Darkness at Noon when the curtain at Mendelssohn was delayed until 8:45 to allow the audience time to watch the Kennedy - Nixon debate, which was to end at 8:30. They also had two televisions in the lobby.
The group was able to expand its work space in 1961 when the city gave them temporary space in the unused utility building at 803 W. Washington, at the end of Mulholland. They bought the building the next year. With financial contributions, plus lots of volunteer hours and donated materials, they built a meeting room, studio for classes, rehearsal space, storage for sets and props, and a costume room and theater space that seated 66 people.
In 1967 they began their “Summer Workshop Programs” which they described as “plays having an experimental flavor that otherwise wouldn’t be produced by the group.” The first offering was two plays by Ionesco. This model of presenting more daring plays in their own space continued in other locations, albeit with different names. The more mainstream plays were always put on in area theaters.
Beyond their own volunteer base, they had lots of support in the community when specific needs arose. When they needed coconuts for The Night of the Iguana they put a request in the News that people visiting Florida bring some back. Florida visitors as well as Delta Airlines responded to the plea. When they needed a goat for The Rose Tattoo, they borrowed Henry from a nearby farm, who is shown in pictures looking totally bewildered. In 1976 they had the use of a real Walker and Company carriage for Oklahoma! The carriages were made in the building now home to the Ann Arbor Art Association. The costume room was full of contributions from people’s attics.
In 1969 U-M student Gilda Radner, later of Saturday Night Live fame, played the lead in She Stoops to Conquer. The play received rave reviews with her performance rated the best. “However, the one who is so suited to her role it seems she almost was made for it, or vice versa, is Gilda Radner,” wrote long time News drama critic Norman Gibson.
In 1979, having outgrown the W. Washington space, they put a down payment on the Elks building at 338 S. Main. It had ample room for all their behind the scenes activities: set making, costume room, box office, meetings, rehearsals, and storage. It also had room to create a performance area they dubbed the “Main Street Stage” to replace the “Summer Workshop Programs.” Their old building was converted to apartments and later into condos.
In 1984, in honor of their upcoming 50th anniversary, they revived their first play, The Late Christopher Bean. Although outdated, it got rave reviews from the News’ Christopher Potter who said without the talented cast it could have been a disaster, but instead was a wonderful resurrection of “a wispy little comedy from a dusty corner its languished in for half a century.”
Another revival occurred in 1986 when Ted Heusel repeated himself by Gypsy using much of the same cast that he used in 1964 including Judy Dow as Mama Rose. In an interview with The News, he laughed about how times had changed. In the 1964 production, there were police in the audience, responding to the complaint that there was stripping in the show. “There were just bumps and grinds, but it’s nothing today.” explained Heusel.
In 1987, after ten years of ownership, they sold the building. Money was tight and they had a good offer for its sale, so they moved into the American Legion Hall at 1035 S. Main. Because they were still on Main Street they kept the name “Main Street Stage,” for their more adventuresome productions.
In 1991 they bought a former roller skating rink at 2275 Platt, after what they called “seven decades of wandering in an architectural wilderness, no more temporary offices and converted meeting halls.” A clever repurposing by architect John Mouat created a versatile theater with seating for 175 in the area where there had been skating, plus three rehearsal rooms and a spacious lobby and snack bar.
They kept the same format, albeit with a name change. The more experimental plays were presented on site and were called “the Second Stage”, a name they changed three years later to “Footlight Productions” to clear up any misunderstandings that they were lesser offering. At the same time they changed “MainStage,” the name for their bigger productions in downtown theaters to “CenterStage.”
In 2000 they sold their building to Vineyard Christian fellowship, a church out of Milan. They had not raised as much money as they had hoped and were unable to make the big balloon payments coming up. They had a large volunteer base but never seemed to be able to raise enough money for brick and mortar establishments. They temporarily moved into the old Performance Network space at 408 W. Washington, which was empty because the building was soon to be torn down for the building of the new Ann Arbor Y. They called that venue “Ann Arbor Civic Downtown.”
In 2004 they moved to 322 West Ann, into rented quarters. “We would not want to own outright again ….We learned the hard way that’s not what our membership is really interested in,” said program director Cassie Mann in a 2004 interview. The Oldnews Collection, which ends in 2009, records the many plays they put on in that time, using their time tested system of smaller offering in their home base and bigger ones in area theaters.
Take a look at the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre programs to follow over 80 years of amazing shows. Relive the shows you saw or discover new ones with cast lists, notes from A2CT presidents and directors, and hundreds of advertisements from local businesses who sponsored A2CT shows over the years.
AADL has digitized hundreds of articles from the Ann Arbor News documenting the history of the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre as it happened, starting with the announcement of the first play and following through years of great performances. Read the previews and reviews of plays gone by and learn about the ups and downs of putting on over 80 years of shows.
Let your memory of past shows be rekindled (or see glimpses of what you missed) with this collection of photographs of the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre. Photos include those taken by A2CT and many by Ann Arbor News photographers of performances, rehearsals, behind the scenes work, and even theatre buildings.